Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-American astronaut to go to space. She flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 to cross horizons and fly into the space. Her life is an inspiration to women all over the globe. She was just an ordinary girl, who, with her extraordinary courage and work, became a source of encouragement to women all over the world to follow their dreams and work hard to succeed. Today, on her 54th birthday, let’s remember her with all our hearts.
Born in Karnal, India, on July 1, 1961, Chawla was the youngest of four children. The name Kalpana means “idea” or “imagination.” Her full name was difficult to pronounce thus she often went by the nickname K.C.
Chawla obtained a degree in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College before immigrating to the United States and becoming a naturalized citizen in the 1980s. She earned a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado in 1988, having previously obtained her masters degree from the University of Texas. She began working at NASA’s Ames Research Center the same year, working on power-lift computational fluid dynamics.
Her first Space mission began on November 19, 1997, as she flew with six other astronauts to space on Space Shuttle Columbia flight STS-87.The shuttle made 252 orbits of the Earth in just over two week. The shuttle carried a number of experiments and observing tools on its trip, including a Spartan satellite, which Chawla deployed from the shuttle. The satellite, which studied the outer layer of the sun, malfunctioned due to software errors, and two other astronauts from the shuttle had to perform a spacewalk to recapture it. She became the first Indian born woman to fly in Space, and the second Indian to be in Space after Rakesh Sharma. Chawla traveled over 10.4 million miles in 252 orbits of the earth, logging more than 372 hours in space. After returning, she received many awards such as Congressional Space Medal of Honor NASA Space Flight Medal and NASA Distinguished Service Medal.
The Disaster :
In 2000, Chawla was selected for her second voyage into space, serving again as a mission specialist on STS-107. The mission was delayed several times, and finally launched in 2003. Over the course of the 16-day flight, the crew completed more than 80 experiments.
On the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle returned to Earth, intending to land at Kennedy Space Center. At launch, a briefcase-sized piece of insulation had broken off and damaged the thermal protection system of the shuttle’s wing, the shield that protects it from heat during re-entry. As the shuttle passed through the atmosphere, hot gas streaming into the wing caused it to break up. The unstable craft rolled and bucked, pitching the astronauts about. Less than a minute passed before the ship depressurized, killing the crew. The shuttle broke up over Texas and Louisiana before plunging into the ground. The accident was the second major disaster for the space shuttle program, following the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger.
The entire crew of seven was killed. In addition to Chawla, the crew included:
- Commander Rick D. Husband
- Pilot William C. McCool
- Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson
- Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut
- Mission Specialists David M. Brown and Laurel B. Clark
Over the course of her two missions, Chawla logged 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space.
After her first launch, she said :
“When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.”
In her last interview to India Today, which she gave just before taking off on her second and final space mission, Chalwa shared her memories of sleeping “in the courtyard under the stars” while growing up in Karnal, Haryana.
“We gazed dreamily at the Milky Way, and once in a while caught some shooting stars. Times like those gave me the opportunity to wonder and ask all those very basic questions. That sense of awe for the heavens started there.”
Chawla’s journey to NASA Astronaut Corps, and to becoming the second Indian and first Indian women to go to space had been carved out of her hard work and determination. And growing up in a small town, perseverance was not something that scared her.
“You couldn’t lose by working hard and everyone seemed to follow that rule,” Chawla said in her interview, “It helped instill the notion that no matter what the circumstances, you could indeed follow your dreams.”
In her message for Indian children, Chawla said –
“Material interests are not the only guiding light. It is something that you’d enjoy doing in the long run.”
“Take the time to figure out how to get there,”she added, “The quickest way may not necessarily be the best. The journey matters as much as the goal.”
One of her most Inspiring lines were –